Imagine you return from one of your best windsurfing trips and one day later you find yourself in the hospital with the shocking diagnosis that you immediately need a surgery or you might end up with irreversible damage or in a wheelchair.
This exactly happened to UK windsurfer Adam Sims. He returned from a great winter in South Africa, had a kind of awkward crash on the day he arrived in Europe and finds himself on the surgeons table a few days after. A herniated disc was pressing on the spinal cord and he immediately needed to undergo surgery.
Right after the surgery, we had a longer talk with Adam about his injury, risk in windsurfing and life.
Interview with Adam Sims
Continentseven: On April 13 you had to undergo a spinal surgery on your neck. How are you doing now and did the surgery go as planned?
Adam Sims: Yep to be honest it all happened pretty fast so I’ve been surprisingly relaxed about it, that said, there were still some pretty hard moments of realisation. Once in the car after seeing the neurosurgeon for the 3rd time it kind of dawned on me, when you hear someone telling you “…from there on it’s loss of lower body control; bowel and stomach function, leg control/feeling and quite possibly in the arms as well”, you kind of can’t ignore the severity of it. Now the surgery is done I don’t feel too bad, bit of a stiff neck, it’s just super strange to have such a potentially life-altering procedure, even life threatening if it goes really wrong, and then to be sitting up and walking as soon as you wake up from surgery, like nothing happened. I guess whatever hard opium-based drugs they gave me were pretty effective as well…
Continentseven: What happened? Did you have a crash?
Adam Sims: I had pains after this big session in Cape Town that Ben Proffitt filmed (link to the video) and it kind of lead on from there, I first destroyed my shoulder and tore the bicep tendon, then I got out to Germany and had a stupid fall the day I arrived in Germany. Over the next two days I developed pretty severe shoulder pain in my whole left arm and a numb/tingling sensation in my left hand. The thing is whilst it’s clear it was this accident that set this off it is really a sign of the weaknesses developed by our bodies due to the radical and progressive moves we put ourselves through. Speaking to the specialists about the kind of impacts I’ve personally had and friends have had, they came back with a stack of questions; who’s taking care of you guys as professional windsurfers, do you know each time you have crashed like that this is spinal compression and your spine/discs have hit your spinal chord, you should be going straight to A&E (Emergency) if you cough up blood after a trauma hit, that’s whiplash and you don’t even want one of those in your life let alone 8 in two years..
Continentseven: Did you have a car accident?
Adam Sims: No it was a windsurf accident in the end, I mean it’s as basic as it gets, I hadn’t even started my session and just slipped getting on to my board, was so stupid! Soon after I started to get a huge amount of pain in my shoulder and left arm, then progressively lose some feeling and experience a tingling sensation in my left hand. So in the end it was a particular incident but like many injuries and health issues they are fabricated by the degeneration of our bodies as we age.
Herniated disc pressing on the spinal cord
Continentseven: Have you ever felt any weaknesses in your spine or neck before?
Adam Sims: I wouldn’t say I’ve felt specifically weak, in fact more the opposite, I would say my build was reasonably strong around the neck/spine (I mean I’m no Arnie Schwarzenegger). Perhaps the issue was more a decent level of flexibility in the spine, this can only put added strain on your joints once you reach their maximum range. Combine that with the fast rotations, the hard crashes over 10 years and it’s no wonder there are tolls taken on the body. Look at the guys competing at the top level, I can list a bunch of them who have had major injuries in recent years.
Continentseven: Do the riders risk too much?
Adam Sims: Our discipline has developed too fast and we do not have the right professionals taking care of those who push themselves way beyond what is healthy. Nobody knows the long term effects of the crashes we put ourselves through but we start to see signs of it. I’ve lived with some of the guys pushing to the limits and when you see the first thing that happens in the morning or after a session is taking/applying some kind of pain killer, then the ice packs come out day in day out, how long do you think the human body can sustain that level.
Continentseven: A surgery at the spine is not a little something. Did you get other opinions, too?
Adam Sims: I ended up getting second and third opinions because I was pretty apprehensive about the surgery, if it went wrong at all then the consequences were quite severe. Obviously my family found out pretty quick and my brother works as a personal trainer for one of the drivers in Formula 1, I ended up speaking to the Trauma Surgeon of that team for an opinion. I also spoke to Sebastien Copeland, a professional adventurer and avid windsurfer who has done some pretty interesting things in his time, he had the same surgery 5 years ago for nearly exactly the same reasons with the same Neurosurgeon.
Continentseven: Will you have a permanent damage becaues of this injury?
Adam Sims: Actually apparently not, I need to see the doctor on Friday for a check-up and more x-rays, but because it was caught so fast, like within one week of the disc prolapse, which was even confirmed by the Neurologists findings, I’m lucky that the nerve damage is not permanent. I pretty much just have a sore neck at the moment, so just have to take it easy for the next 2 weeks before I start rehab, which will make a total of 10 weeks off the water. I’m super lucky and have a few people to thank massively, not least my girlfriend and her family who put me in touch with the shoulder surgeon, Dr. Peter Brucker, turns out he happened to be one of the best guys in the game and spotted that my spine was in actual fact the issue, despite finding a torn bicep tendon… that’s another story! And of course the Neurosurgeon, Dr. Philipp Tanner, for doing such a great job. Both come highly recommended, not just from me.
Continentseven: The first events of the season start soon and you made plans for the upcoming months. Now everything changed. How do you deal with that situation?
Adam Sims: Well so far I was taking it one day at a time, I keep smiling and remain positive, in the end I can have surgery like this after a full winter training and still be back on the water one month before the first World Tour event, if I feel like competing this year. There are still the first two EFPT stops in May however, Austria and Tarifa, but I’ll still be there with my camera. I think the best way to deal with it all is to do what I always do when I have a free moment, I straight away get on with another idea or project that I have, it keeps me occupied and motivated. At the moment the main thing for me now is filming and film production, so I’ll take the opportunity to learn even more, expand my horizons a bit and perhaps reach out more beyond just windsurfing. I’m optimistic that I’m back on the water soon.
Continentseven: Do you think you will go less radical in your future windsurfing sessions?
Adam Sims: That’s an interesting question and one I discussed with my surgeon a lot. The fact is, it’s not a matter of choice because of the surgery it’s a matter of the physical limitations of our bodies. As far as I know this kind of surgery has very minimal physical implications if successful, so my first thoughts were now that two vertebrae are fused together the strain on the next two will be increased, but it’s only going to be increased by the level of activity I choose to put myself through, and that kind of activity is not really the best for the physical body. But for 10 years now I’ve always pushed as hard as my level and abilities allow and when the doctor says it’s ok to windsurf again then I will continue. Perhaps with a view to land more things than just send myself.
Continentseven: What’s your advice for all the other windsurfers pushing the sport to its limits?
Adam Sims: Well everyone has their different views on what ‘radical’ and ‘pushing the sport’ even is, that’s something I respect a lot, but from my perspective I would say we have already entered a time where the moves are well beyond the protective gear we have available to us. I’m stoked to see Severne stepping up with their padded wetsuit but it’s pretty hard for 90% of the PWA fleet to put this on… I’d say we should strongly consider better protective gear and perhaps we should have more respect for each other if someone chooses to wear it.
Adam Sims in Cape Town this winter
Continentseven: After such a drastic experience, did your view of life change?
Adam Sims: The thing is just a few years ago I had a crash trying my first double forward loops, it lead me to a horrible concussion where I collapsed on the beach the moment I came to shore, I was still conscious but somehow I couldn’t hold my own weight for a few moments. I ended up with repetitive attacks of vertigo for a year and a half but this past year I’ve held back even less with my windsurfing. I can’t really say how I will be in one years time but there was a moment just before surgery where I realised that I was lucky to be walking and then I realised if this goes to shit then that could be the last walk I did, into another hospital, in another foreign country! At that moment my view was like, “alright maybe take it a bit easier from now” but as the days have passed and my range of motion has improved in my neck I can’t help the faint thoughts that draw a picture of those perfect stunt ramps in Fuerteventura and the new moves I tried a couple times last year but haven’t yet made…
I think it’s important to state that I’m not as careless as I might sound, I’m fairly calculated, I consider my family, my girlfriend and those close to me when I’m on the water. Woah you don’t know how hard it has been to answer this question, I spent about 2 hours on it. In the end, I know as well as anyone that life is precious and can be gone in an instant, from the moment you sent me the first questions, to these last questions I sadly lost a friend in Fuerteventura, she passed away at the age of 21 from Asthma, I also found out a family friend from my girlfriends side has ended up in a coma in Austria after a kiting accident. I’m trying my hardest to avoid a stack of cheesy cliches that’ll make a bunch of people puke but perhaps take the words of a late Idol of mine “Don’t be too hard on yourself, be nice to one another and enjoy every moment in life” – Paskowski. Really just do what YOU enjoy and if anyone thinks less of it, keep doing it anyway, why? Because you enjoy it.
Continentseven: With this experience and more knowledge, do you see 10m high jumps, Double Forward landings, hard crashes differently than before?
Adam Sims: Well I know water can be pretty hard. So landing these moves is basically the best thing to do because crashing sucks. Although I’d say my neck injuries come from freestyle, it’s all that rail catching at high speed that causes the neck to whip. From height the worst crashes seem to be more blunt traumas from equipment (which are very rare actually) or hitting the water hard. Flat on your back for example, according to my doctor, multiple spinal compressions is not good. So I’ll keep the impact vest on whenever the waves are pumping and be thankful that it’s water.
In memory of Iria, Rest In Peace my friend.
Continentseven: Thanks for the interview and we wish all the best for your recovery!
©Photos: private, PWA/John Carter